Text by Steve Vickers / Photograph by Future Publishing/Joby Sessions
"I don’t know when the obsession started,” says Mikael Åhdén, glancing at the guitar case by his feet. “One time I managed to get two Gibson guitars and promised my mother I’d pay her the money I’d borrowed for the new one. But I realised I couldn’t sell either. They were good, but so different.”
That was in the mid-1960s – since then, Mikael and his twin brother Samuel have quietly amassed a vast collection of rare guitars, many from the ’50s and ’60s. Now they’ve gone public, putting their unique collection on display in a brand new museum in Umeå, northern Sweden – the European Capital of Culture this year, along with the Latvian capital, Riga.
“We had offers from Russia, France and Denmark to do a travelling exhibition,” says Samuel, “but if it’s going to be anywhere, it’s going to be here in Umeå.”
The brothers, who run a franchise of the 4Sound music chain in the city, grew up at a time when northern Sweden’s live acts were limited to dance bands, but through music magazines like Melody Maker they discovered rock ’n’ roll. Soon enough, they were learning Chuck Berry songs on a neighbour’s guitar, and a lifelong fascination was born. “If you have an interest when you’re young, you focus on that thing,” says Mikael. “When you meet a girl, maybe you have to quit. But,” he says, looking at his brother, “we’ve always had each other to share our interest.”
After impressing with a selection of their guitars at an exhibition in Stockholm, the twins began to think about creating a permanent attraction. Guitars – The Museum has just opened in an old redbrick school building in the centre of Umeå. There are nearly 300 guitars here, some worth over SEK1 million (NOK915,744) each; the Crown Jewels room holds around 10 guitars, including 1958 and ’59 Gibson Flying Vs, and a 1960 Les Paul (favoured by Eric Clapton), while other rooms are filled with up to 80 guitars at a time. Mikael’s favourite is a 1958 Gibson blonde dot-marker while Samuel prefers the B-Bender (think The Byrds) – he has 30 of them.
The museum also houses 150 amps and speakers, vintage drum kits, rehearsal studios, a café-bar-restaurant, and rock club Scharinska. The first exhibition focuses on Umeå’s hardcore scene from 1989-2000, which had strong links with animal rights supporters. Bands like Refused became some of the city’s biggest exports. In 2011 the Popular Movement Archive in Västerbotten started a project to document the movement, amassing some 3,000 photos, 600 newspaper cuttings, 200 videos, fanzines and more, some of which are on show here, affording an insight into Umeå’s unlikely musical heritage.